2019 was my year of art, museums, and cultural events, but 2020 couldn’t have been more different.
At first, sheltering in place and working from home was a nice change of pace, even fun. But by the end of this year, wanderlust had set in and all I could think about were all the amazing places and events I had visited in 2019, most of which had been canceled.
One of my favorite annual events in Switzerland is always the Lugano autumn festival. It has a way of turning the usually quiet city into an outdoor cornucopia of seasonal foods, events, and traditions.
Currently stuck inside (and trying to stick to a diet), I am taking a look back at the last installment of this unique celebration of autumn. Meanwhile, I am dreaming of pizzoccheri and merlot...
The diverse regionality is one of the things that makes Switzerland so special.
The 26 cantons of Switzerland are markedly distinct in most every way possible: architecture, food, history or traditions - big and small. Even the umpteen dialects of Switzerland’s four official languages can vary from one town to the next.
Visitors to Switzerland can best feel, and get a taste of, this diversity and seasonality through the celebrations, colors, foods, and unique traditions. Every region, canton, and community has their own special way to celebrate the passing of the seasons. Ticino is no exception, with the Lugano autumn festival showcasing the best that Ticino has to offer.
Regional specialties at the Lugano autumn festival
Anyone who lives in Lugano will tell you it’s quiet… maybe even too quiet. But in October, Lugano suddenly comes alive to celebrate autumn.
In a multi-day festival that runs late into the nights, you’ll find all the wonderful crafts, foods and traditions that come with this season. I'd previously written about how Ticino is made for autumn, and I really mean it.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite part, the food!
Terroir might be a bit of an overused word at the moment, but the Lugano autumn festival is a masterclass in what it is and why it is so important both for the quality of the food itself and for creating a regional identity.
Many of the dishes served from the food stands and pop-up restaurants all over the city have evolved over the centuries. They changed in response to the natural resources that were available to grow, as well as to the changing climate and culture.
Not entirely Italian, but not quite alpine, Ticino’s food traditions borrow the best from both culinary worlds. Colder climates feature foods that warm a person up, and the Ticino's autumnal delicacies like polenta, pizzoccheri, and luganighetta are just that: hearty, warming, and heavy enough to keep you going through a busy day or a cold night. Of course, while they taste great year round, they are just that much better when there is a chill in the air.
Nuts about chestnuts
Chestnuts are one of Ticino’s main specialties and have a long history as a vital food staple.
You can see the chestnut trees everywhere you go, but it is only in the autumn when the nuts are harvested that you can really enjoy all of the chestnut-based delicacies.
Of course, there are the classic coal roasted chestnuts that warm up your hands and give every European city that nice, nutty, wintry smell.
There is also chestnut cake, nocino chestnut liqueur and, my personal favorite, vermicelli.
This is a sweetened chestnut paste that, if you buy it on the street, is pushed through a mold (like play-doh). This creates long, thin, sweet chestnut ‘noodles’ that are coiled into a cup and topped with Chantilly cream.
It might sound strange, but just think of it like a winter gelato substitute. The Lugano autumn festival usually coincides with the Chestnut Festival in Ascona, so you can see just how important the tree is to the Ticinese.
A celebration of regional crafts and music
The autumn festival is not just about food, however. Regional crafts, music, and products are also being celebrated. During the day, you can browse the red booths set up around Piazza Riforma and down along Via Nassa. They sell everything from artisanal food products like incredible local honey and merlot, to unique handcrafted items.
My favorite stall sells handmade marionettes, both classic and novelty.
Lugano is normally a quiet city, but it’s yearly calendar of events include some real gems that pack the city with visitors, like the famous Blues to Bop music festival in September, or the autumn festival each October.
October is also the month that summer usually ends in Lugano, but this doesn’t mean that any of the fun stops. During the day, you can still stroll around in the warm sunshine, while the evening’s chill only demands a light jacket.
When I visited last year, Parco Ciani by the lake was packed with weekenders enjoying the flowers, and the lake was dotted with paddle-boaters taking advantage of the stunning weather. It was also the perfect conditions to take a guided walking tour of the city, which leave from the Lugano Tourism office in Piazza Riforma.
Once the sun sets, you get to see the modern evolution of the fall festival.
Piazza Riforma is the city’s stunning main square, where all the most important events start. Once the sun goes down, it becomes the festival’s hub; stages host live music and stalls sell handmade crafts, while marquee tents crank out grilled sausages and a variety of hot, cheesy fall fare.
My personal favorite is the pizzoccheri tent, serving up the gooey, stick-to-your-ribs buckwheat pasta dish that can only be found along the Swiss-Italian border.
The atmosphere inside the tents is always lively and congenial, if a bit hectic by the usual Lugano standards, as everyone rubs elbows at the shared picnic tables, something that certainly didn’t happen this year.
As you move through the city, each piazza has something to offer. Pop-up bars and grotti line the streets, music can be found on every corner, and you can chat with visitors from all over Switzerland, and the world.
Last year, Via Nassa, an elegant shopping street leading off Piazza Riforma, was particularly festive. One grotto, with a balloon arch for an entrance, featured a line of steaming cast iron cauldrons that looks like they were made specifically to brew potions, but actually contained a variety of soups, and of course polenta.
Another grotto, the very appropriately named Grottino al Fiasco, was so packed that getting to the counter to make an order was nearly impossible, let alone getting space at a shared table.
Waiting in line among a packed crowd of people, a memory that now induces a bit of anxiety, I remember watching the chefs working busily in the open kitchen, particularly the woman operating the dangerous looking polenta contraption.
If you spot a huge metal barrel with an electric whisk the size of an out-board motor, that’s the polenta pot.
The polenta in Ticino is a bit different from the version typically served in Italy. It’s thicker, heartier, and served plain with a thick slab of local cheese or sausage. If you want something a bit “lighter,” try the incredible onion soup served in a boule of dark bread. And don’t forget a bottle of Ticino merlot!
All the food was brought out to the table by an army of ever smiling grotto volunteers, most of them kids and teens, who ducked and wove their way through the crowd with the plates. At this pop-up grotto the seating might have been a fiasco, but the food and fun familial atmosphere made all the chaos worth it.
After leaving the grotto, I grabbed a vermicelli from a street stand and wandered down Via Nassa until I got to the LAC, Lugano’s stunning arts and culture center. Here, it is usually quiet and peaceful, offering a stunning panoramic view of the city’s lakefront and surrounding mountains.
It was the perfect place to digest for a moment and listen to the music of the celebrating city floating out over the lake. Lugano’s autumn festival was actually one of the few big seasonal events taking place this year, a testament to the city’s careful planning, social distancing, and hygiene rules.
Even though I have to make do with memories of last year’s festival, I know that everyone who was able to attend this year enjoyed the same stunning food and scenery.